Nightmare at Reagan National Airport: A Security Story to End all Security Stories
UPDATE: TSA has posted a video in the incident on their website. You can read more about this video, the TSA incident report, and the incident itself HERE.
If you travel enough, you've seen it all -- and possibly some of the awful things that can happen while traveling will have actually happened to you. But nothing I've read about or experienced comes close to what Monica Emmerson experienced while at Reagan National Airport on June 11th while traveling with her 19-month-old toddler. This isn't one of those Catch-22 bureaucratic snafus; this isn't about rules being applied to the letter. This story is mostly about what can happen simply because the authorities in charge decide that they're going to exercise their authority because they can, regardless of whether it's legal or right or makes any sense at all.
And if this can happen to a former law enforcement officer with the United States Secret Service, it can happen to anyone.
The incident started when Monica, who left the Secret Service to raise a family, was stopped while going through airport security because there was water in her son's sippy cup. The sippy cup was seized by TSA. Monica wanted the cup back because the sippy cup was the only way her son would drink -- and it was a long flight between Washington, DC and Reno, Nevada where she was going for a family reunion. If you've ever had a toddler you understand about sippy cups.
So she was willing to spill the water out. Drink the water. Anything -- all that she wanted was to be able to have a cup that her 19-month-old toddler could drink from.
Here's what happened in Monica's words:
"I demanded to speak to a TSA [Transportation Security Administration] supervisor who asked me if the water in the sippy cup was 'nursery water or other bottled water.' I explained that the sippy cup water was filtered tap water. The sippy cup was seized as my son was pointing and crying for his cup. I asked if I could drink the water to get the cup back, and was advised that I would have to leave security and come back through with an empty cup in order to retain the cup. As I was escorted out of security by TSA and a police officer, I unscrewed the cup to drink the water, which accidentally spilled because I was so upset with the situation.
"At this point, I was detained against my will by the police officer and threatened to be arrested for endangering other passengers with the spilled 3 to 4 ounces of water. I was ordered to clean the water, so I got on my hands and knees while my son sat in his stroller with no shoes on since they were also screened and I had no time to put them back on his feet. I asked to call back my fiancé, who I could still see from afar, waiting for us to clear security, to watch my son while I was being detained, and the officer threatened to arrest me if I moved. So I yelled past security to get the attention of my fiancé.
"I was ordered to apologize for the spilled water, and again threatened with arrest. I was threatened several times with arrest while detained, and while three other police officers were called to the scene of the mother with the 19 month old. A total of four police officers and three TSA officers reported to the scene where I was being held against my will. I was also told that I should not disrespect the officer and could be arrested for this too. I apologized to the officer and she continued to detain me despite me telling her that I would miss my flight. The officer advised me that I should have thought about this before I 'intentionally spilled the water!'"
Monica said that the incident ended this way: "I missed my flight, needless to say after being detained for over 40 minutes. After the officer was done humiliating me, I was advised that I could go through the security check point in an attempt to catch my flight. The officer insisted that my son and I be rescreened despite us both being detained and under her control the entire time."
During the weeks and months after 9/11 some passengers who were caught with unidentified fluids while going through airport security were told to drink the liquid (including breast milk) to prove that it wasn't an explosive. In one incident, a fourteen year old boy was ordered to drink water that he was carrying, and it turned out that this was unclean pond water he was carrying for a science project. Monica was more than happy to drink her child's tap water --all three or four ounces of it-- and tried, in fact. But it was the trying and spilling that seems to have escalated this into a situation that required the presence of four TSA officers and three police officers.
TSA found no other security problems with Monica Emmerson. Not even a nail clipper. Just the water and the sippy cup.
TSA's rules allow passengers to take up to three ounces of liquid on board; they also allow parents to take milk or baby formula on board in larger quantities than that, if declared to TSA. But the question that she was asked by TSA --was this "nursery water" in the sippy cup?-- was an unanswerable one, since there's no such thing as nursery water in the TSA regulations, and it's not a generic term.
Monica Emmerson was detained for 45 minutes. She wasn't questioned about possible ties to terrorists. Her carry-on items weren't rigorously searched -- or even searched again. Neither the police nor TSA took any action that indicated that they throught she might be a security risk. She was just detained, harassed and threatened with arrest. All because of a sippy cup with water in it.